Sunday, August 6, 2023

Twilight on Taransay

There is something special about an early morning, or early evening landing, on a deserted island. The slanting rays of the sun give the terrain an added dimension of depth and color.  

Adding to the uniqueness is that these shore trips, before breakfast, or after dinner, are few and far between. I last wrote of such an experience in 2019, when during a trip down the west of Ireland we went ashore for an early morning walk on Iniskea North. (You can see those photos on the November 7, 2019 post.)

And so, on a Hebridean cruise in June, I was delighted when the skipper offered up an evening stroll on Taransay. Some of these photos show the ruin of the nineteenth century Taigh Geal na h-Uidhe, the white house of Uidhe. Originally two-storeys high, with a roof of Ballachulish slate, the house was built for John MacDonald, the Taransay tacksman in the nineteenth century. The structure turned out to be unstable, so the gables were knocked down, and the slates taken for use on a building in Tarbert.

The shell of the house still stands in the form of a single-storey, tin-roofed bothy, refurbished by the Mountain Bothies Association in the 1980s. (They no longer maintain the bothy.) Many years had passed since I last entered the bothy. On that previous visit in 2011, there was a two-burner propane stove sitting atop a slim table and a half dozen fishnet hammocks hung from the rafters. There were several fishing crates stacked in the cooking area, each holding an assortment of worn utensils. Except for two items, an adjacent shelf was bare. The two items it proudly held were a crusty salt shaker and a faded jar of Marmite. Stamped on the Marmite label was EXP: 7/2008. I've never been a Marmite fan, let alone when it's been fermenting for three years.

When I entered the bothy in June I found it to be a sad wreck, The door was gone, and the inside was a complete mess. But, if you wanted to spend the night, the fishnet hammocks were still there.

Before returning to the ship, I paid a visit to St Taran's cross. The incised cross on the standing stone has faded over the years, but you can still make it out. It was a delight to see in in the twilight, but I will never forget how it looked on a sunny afternoon, twenty years ago (last photo).

Saturday, June 24, 2023

A Shot of Rum

Two weeks ago I had a few hours of shore leave on Rum. Not enough time to do much. But time enough to do something exciting. After passing in front of the sad-looking and fenced-off Kinloch Castle, I made my way to the bridge over the Kinloch River. Once over the bridge, a turn to the left led to the start of the North Nature Trail. A thousand feet later, at an elevation of 100 feet, the trail made a hard left turn to the west. It was time to leave the easy track and dive into the hard wilderness.

Hard wilderness may seem an exaggeration. But it was hard, it was wild, with seemingly endless stretches of three-foot-tall hummocks of grass. Each hummock hid one of three things: a deep hole, a patch of swamp, or a stream. It was slow going, made easier now and then by deer trails. How in the hell deer ran along these paths without plunging into a hole and breaking a leg is a mystery.

It was a swelteringly hot day. Whenever I stopped to cool off the midges and clegs showed up in force, so the respites were short. The despairing challenge of the hummocks was interspersed with sections of blessedly shaded woodland. But it was not much of a blessing, as it required multiple detours around impassable swaths of trees. Here and there dead stumps rose from the ground. Whenever I grabbed one for support it crumbled to dust. Dead and dried. I felt dead and dried. I was also worried about ticks, so avoided sitting on the ground to rest, as I ascended eastward across the shoulder of Meall a’ Ghoirtein.

A half-hour later, I reached the tree line at an elevation of 300 feet. The GPS indicated I had another 200 feet to climb and a quarter mile of terrain to cross to reach my destination. Twenty minutes later I noticed a structure built upon a strange, arch-shaped boulder. The boulder was ten feet by five, and the structure was what I’d been searching for: an intact beehive cell, eight feet high at its centre.

There are nearly 400 shieling huts on Rum, and over a hundred of them were circular cells. Only about three of the beehive type are still intact, and this cell, high on the slopes above Kinloch Castle, is one of them. It was a stunning location, with a wide view over the mouth of Loch Scresort. Most of Eigg could also be seen, with the high prow of An Sgùrr pointing skyward.

There was a low, lintelled entrance on the east side of the cell. Ticks be damned, I crawled inside. The interior was blissfully cool, and mysteriously shielded from the barrage of persistent midges. The dome was not perfectly built, and several gaps allowed shafts of sunlight to illuminate the interior.

The floor was covered with a thick layer of dried thatch, which would make it a comfortable place to nap. Large, flat stones lay under the thatch; stones that strangely clanked when any pressure was applied, hinting that there may be storage chambers below them. I was beat in the heat and had limited time, so was not in the mood to nap or look under the stones.

The cell was once part of a shieling village, and the ruins of several other structures dotted the nearby hillside. It seemed like an odd place for shielings, on the steeply sloping ground below Meall a’ Ghoirtein. But the hill’s name hints at why the settlement was here, as it roughly translates to the Hill of Cultivation (OS Name Book, Argyll Vol. 63, p.67). It was a beautiful spot, with an open view over Loch Scresort. The loch was as calm as a mill pond, and along with several sailing yachts I could see our ship, Hjalmar Bjorge, lying at anchor. 

The reinforcements the midges had called for then showed up in force. It was time to "run away, run away". On the way back to the pier I wandered around the fenced-off Kinloch Castle. On its porch lay several mouldering benches. The sight of one of them took me back to another sunny day, twenty-six years before. It was 1997, and my wife and I had just returned from the fifteen-mile round-trip walk to see the mausoleum at Harris. We were staying in the ‘Sir William Bass’ bedroom on the southwest corner of the castle’s top floor. Before going in to freshen up, with ankles afire from the long, stony walk, we rested on a white bench beside the main entrance. (The following photo is from 1997.)

Over a quarter-century had passed since that day of memory. The bench was now faded and cracked, as was the castle.

I walked around to peer up at the windows of the turreted Bass Bedroom and wondered what it looked like today—probably faded and cracked. Plans are afoot to renovate the castle. I hope they succeed. I’d like to bring Shawna back to Rum someday to stay, once again, in that grand bedroom, before I, too, am faded and cracked.

Note: My thanks to John Love for the information on the location of the cell.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

The Beehive of Both a' Ghriosamul - A Message in a Bottle

In section 2.6.2 of Beehive Dwellings of the Hebrides I wrote about a visit to the remote cell at Both a' Ghriosamul. It lies two miles east of Kinlochresort and requires a dedicated effort to reach. I visited the cell on May 21, 2019, and after crawling into it I found a couple of old, empty bottles. One had once held whisky, and the other looked to have been for something medicinal.

It was a blazing hot day, and so I sheltered from the sun inside the cell for a half-hour. As I did, I caught up on my journal, and since the pen was at hand, decided to leave a note for the next visitor. I tore a blank page from the back of the journal, wrote a few lines, then shoved it into the medicine bottle. After crawling out of the cell I made my way back to my campsite at Airigh an t-Sluic.

I had forgotten all about the note I wrote in 2019 until I received an e-mail on May 21, 2023: four years to the day from when I left it in the cell. The message was from Anna Mackenzie of Lewis who, along with her friend Murdo Macleod, were using my book to find the cell. On entering it they discovered my message in a bottle, and kindly sent me this photo of a note from the past.

I am delighted that the book is inspiring people to seek out these mostly forgotten cells. I would love to hear from anyone else who has done that.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

A Beautiful Sight

I was delighted this morning when I took a look at the Oban North Pier webcam. It showed a gloriously sunny day. Even better, it showed my two favourite ships, both fresh from winter hibernation and ready to start the new season.

At left is Hjalmar Bjorge, which I will be joining in a few weeks. They have spaces available for several of this year's trips - see the Northern Lights website for more information.

At right is Elizabeth G, which is operated by Hebrides Cruises. Its owner is Rob Barlow, and it was with Rob that I made one of my first remote island adventures back in 2002. For information on their trips see the Hebrides Cruises website.

Saturday, April 8, 2023

The Islands Book Trust

I just learned that the Islands Book Trust is once again holding events and actively pursuing new publications. I urge you to support them by becoming a member and/or donating. Details can be found on their website:

Monday, April 3, 2023

Way back, in what seems like a galaxy far, far away, I wrote about a night when I was saved from hypothermia. A night when a soggy hiker stumbled upon a mostly intact shieling to shelter for the night. (See the July 28, 2017 post, which you should read first). The shieling was on the southern slopes of Beinn Rathacliet, four miles east of Carloway of Lewis. I had made the two-day hike in what became a failed attempt to find a beehive cell I'd read about in the area.

A reader recently asked if I ever found the cell. As the following story will relate, the short answer is, no. The long answer is, yes.

* * *

The failed hike occurred in July of 2017. Not finding the beehive was a big disappointment, and so a year later I once again tried to find it. It was August of 2018 when I set out from the end of the road at Pairc Siaboast, where I'd ended the one-night shieling walk the year before.

This time the pack was much lighter, as I was going to make an out-and-back day hike. I still did not know the location of the cell I'd sought the year before. But I thought there was a good chance I'd find it if I circled around Beinn Bhragair, where the map showed two large shieling sites: Gearraidh Choinnich and Gearraidh Mhàolan.

Under gray, unsettled skies, I started along the mile-and-a-half track that wends its way through Gleann Mòr Shiaboist. The track ended at the Shiaboist waterworks, where I started out across the moorland towards the saddle between Beinn Bhragair and Beinn Choinnich. It was then that things took a turn for the worse.

First came the wind. Then came the rain. Then came the exhaustion.

I'd not yet fully recovered from a three-day hike through Morsgail I'd completed the day before. It had been three days of wet weather and boggy terrain; three days that had sapped my strength. All that caught up to me five minutes after starting across the heathered terrain towards Beinn Bhragair when I stopped to put on waterproofs. Due to the rain and clouds, I could barely see my destination: the dark pass east of Beinn Bhragair. It was only a mile away, but the hard part was that I'd have to climb 500 feet. Easy peasy on a nice day, but at that moment, tired and sweating heavily in my rain gear, it felt as if I had to scale Everest.

I decided to turn back. I told myself it was because any photos taken on that wet and grey day would turn out wet and grey, and they would. But the truth was I was too old to carry on in those conditions. But old enough to know the right thing to do would be to come back on a better day the following year, when the journey would be something to enjoy, not endure.

Little did I know that COVID would have something to say about that. Several years were to pass before I once again traversed the heights of Beinn Bhragair to search for that elusive cell.

— Four Years Pass: It is now 2022 —

As it turned out, when I'd spent that rainy night in the shieling in 2017, I'd missed the cell I'd been seeking by a half mile. I learned that in the summer of 2021, just after Beehive Cell Dwellings of the Hebrides was published. I was contacted by James Crawford, who had restored the beehives of Cnoc Dubh and Eilean Fir Crothair. Among many other things, James told me the location of the cell. It was at Gearraidh Mhàolan, a shieling site south of the summit of Beinn Bhragair.

And so, in the summer of 2022, I once again walked the track to Siabost waterworks. But this time it was a dry day, not a rain cloud in sight. After traversing the west flank of Beinn Bhragair, I made the steep climb through bracken and heather to the saddle between Beinn Bhragair and Beinn Rathacleit. After cresting a few false summits, I came to a green, triangular-shaped oasis in the bog that overlooked a vast, level section of moorland. It would have been the perfect place to pitch a tent - a haven in the wilderness. And it was there that I found the elusive beehive (NB 2677 4284), along with the foundations of two other cells robbed of their stones long ago.

The beehive had obviously been tampered with. An iron pipe, possibly once used as a chimney by the cell's last occupants when it was a shieling, lay atop the ruin. Time had not been kind. The cell was reduced to about 75% of the height it had in a photo from the 1970s, and the interior was so clogged with stones fallen from the dome that there was no way to safely enter.

I left the cell and crossed the marshy saddle between Beinn Mhaol and Beinn Rathacleit, then descended to Uishal. On turning a corner, a familiar sight came into view: the shieling of my one night five years before.

It looked quite different, as it had been given some love since my last visit. The turf roof that had a big hole in it had been repaired and a fiberglass skylight installed. Also different was the door: there was one. In 2017, there was just an iron bar placed diagonally across the entrance to keep out the sheep. The shieling now sported a shiny aluminum door, held in place by that same iron bar. After removing the door, I stepped inside to discover that all the junk had been cleared away.

The next three photos show the interior as I found it in 2017. (The third photo shows the sheep skull that had grinned at me during that cold, restless night in 2017).

The following photos show the cleaned up interior found in 2022.

I was happy to discover that the eerie sheep skull had been given a proper burial somewhere. After securing the door firmly in place I started the three-mile walk back to the car.

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Stac Dhomhnaill Chaim

The Mangarstadh cliffs looked particularly stunning in the early morning sunshine as I climbed up from the golden sands of Traigh Mhangarstadh, split by the gently flowing water of Allt Loch a' Ghlomaich.

From the beach a gradual ascent led to the headland of Rubha Thisgeis, where the undulating cliff top was followed farther north to a point opposite Stac Dhomhnaill Chaim: the precarious stack-top fort of Domnhnaill Chaim Macaulay, one-eyed Donald Macaulay.

Donald was chief of the Macaulays of Uig in the early 1600s. He died around 1640, but still lives on in Uig history and legend. (Donald was the grandson of John Roy Macaulay, whose tale was told in Chapter 17 of Skye & Tiree to the Outer Isles.) In his youth, Donald joined some of the Macleods of Lewis working as mercenaries in Ireland, fighting for the O'Neill earl of Tyrone. On his return to Lewis, Donald carried on with the only career he knew. Fighting. Some of his foes were the 'Fife Adventurers', sent to Lewis by James VI. The Adventurers came in 1599, bringing over 500 troops to tame the natives. Aside from fighting off the invaders, Donald had a long-running feud with the Morrisons of Lewis. During one incident, Donald set out to kill a band of Morrisons who were using the Broch of Carloway as a base. After dispatching the sentry, and blocking the one doorway, Donald scaled the wall of the forty-foot-high broch.

So, just how do you climb a broch? It was something out of Mission Impossible. Donald used knives, one in each hand, that he inserted in gaps in the stonework to inch his way to the top. Once there, he heaved burning bales of heather into the fort. The Morrisons, trapped inside, were smothered. One incident in Donald's conflicts gave him his nickname. It occurred during a struggle with the blacksmith of Cnip, the Gobha Bàn. The fair-haired smith wielded a red-hot poker and blinded Donald in one eye. (Lesson learned: if your opponent has a red-hot poker, run away.) I do not know who won the fight. Did Donald manage to wrest away the hot poker or not? And if so, what did he do with it? The fate of Edward II comes to mind.

Donald Cam participated in an attack on Stornoway Castle in 1607, which made him, even more, an enemy of the state. As such, he lived like Osama Bin Laden, changing his location from one remote spot to another, always on the run. One of his hideouts was a roundhouse, Dùn Camus na Clibhe—also called Valtos Castle, high above the beach of Traigh na Clibhe. Another of his hidey-holes was an island-fort in Loch Bharabhat, reached by a 100-foot-long causeway. Donald may also have spent time at a remote shieling on the east shore of Loch Seaforth, where you will find the ruins of Airigh Dhomhnuill Chaim at the foot of Sidhean an Airgid, the hill of wealth.

Now that you know something of Donald Cam, you'll understand why I'd come to the cliffs of Mangarstadh to see Stac Dhomhnaill Chaim, One-Eyed Donald's most fantastic hiding place. The nearest I could get was a dramatic precipice looking across to the narrow stack, which was barely 100 feet wide and jutted 500 feet into the sea. There had been a fort on the stack long before the days of Donald Cam. It had been reached by a narrow land bridge, one that has since crumbled away, leaving an airy, sixty-foot gap. Although you can't get there without climbing gear, the fortifications can be seen from the mainland. They consist of a D-shaped wall enclosing an area forty by twenty feet in size. And at its centre stand the walls of a ruined cottage that Donald occasionally called home. The description of the fort in Donald MacIver's Place Names of Lewis and Harris says:

This is the rock where this warlike hero was hiding after dealing severely with his betrayers. His daughter, Anna, brought him food at night.

It is also mentioned by Bill Lawson in Lewis: The West Coast:

Domhnall Cam is the folk hero of the MacAulays in Uig, and having allied himself to the old MacLeod chiefs against the Scottish king and the MacKenzies, he was being pursued even more than usual. So he fortified the stack, where he was attended by his daughter Anna, who brought provisions and water up the cliff-face. She is said to have been so sure-footed that she could climb the stack with a pail of  milk in each hand.

Even though I'd read the stack was inaccessible, I was hoping to find a way across. But those hopes vanished the moment I stood at the edge of the cliff. Not even a sure-footed, dedicated daughter, like the fearless Anna trying to help her father, could climb the stack these days. You would need ropes and a lot of courage. (With a pail of milk in each hand you'd need a helicopter.) I don't know how Donald Cam met his end—maybe he fell off the stack—but some sources say he died at the ripe old age of eighty and is buried at Balnacille, the sanctuary on whose threshold his grandfather, John Roy Macaulay, killed the Macleods of Pabbay.

Note: The above story is an excerpt from the upcoming Second Edition of Skye & Tiree to the Outer IslesFor a complete account of Donald Cam Macauley see Chapter 4 of Michael Robson's Someone Else's Story (Acair Books, 2018).